May 9, 2006

Australia celebrates, and mourns, after mine rescue

By Michael Perry

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Two Australian miners trapped in a small
cage deep underground for 14 days walked out of the mine on
Tuesday, triumphantly thrusting their arms into the air after
rescuers freed them shortly before dawn.

Brant Webb, 37, and Todd Russell, 34, wearing yellow
jackets and mining helmets with their lamps shining brightly,
walked confidently to a large board and removed their name
cards -- declaring they had ended their shift underground.

Their wives rushed to hug them before scores of rescuers
descended on them hugging and shaking hands.

"This is the great escape. This is the biggest escape from
the biggest prison we have, the planet," said Australian
Workers Union national secretary Bill Shorten.

A third miner, Larry Knight, 44, was killed in the cave-in.
Local media said Webb and Russell were believed to have
attended Knight's private funeral on Tuesday after being given
a clean bill of health and discharged from hospital.

The miners were trapped 3,000 feet underground in a wire
cage, about the size of a double bed, on April 25 after a
cave-in caused by an earthquake at the Beaconsfield Gold Mine
on the southern island of Tasmania.

"They are in excellent condition. They are tough Tasmanian
miners," said Dr Stephen Ayre at nearby Launceston Hospital.
Russell ate a breakfast of steak and eggs before leaving

Australian Prime Minister John Howard praised the rescue
operation as a triumph of "Australian mateship" as miners from
Beaconsfield and mine rescue experts from around the country
worked against the odds to save the lives of two colleagues.

The Beaconsfield mine has been closed and miners paid a
month's wages while an inquiry is held to determine whether it
is safe to return. Unions have raised concerns over mine safety
after a series of cave-ins in recent years and a state
government inquiry will be held into the latest cave-in.


News of the rescue was heralded by the mine's siren and the
bell at the small town's Uniting Church pealed in celebration.
Beaconsfield's Club Hotel poured free beer to rescuers.

Many Australians woke before dawn to watch the final stages
of the rescue live on television, some hanging Australian flags
from their homes to celebrate the news that the men were free.

Webb and Russell were found alive five days after the
cave-in, but digging the 48-feet long horizontal rescue tunnel
toward them was painstakingly slow as miners had to grind
through rock five times harder than concrete.

Food and fresh water was delivered to the men through a
small plastic pipe along with clothes, a digital camera and
four iPod players -- the later allowing them a sense of their
own space.

Over the past few days, Webb and Russell spread grout
beneath their wire cage to stabilize the ground and minimize
the chances of a rock fall when they were finally reached.
Miners had feared the vertical digging may cause a cave-in on
top of rescuers.

Rescuers used hand boring equipment and precise low-grade
explosives, sometimes as close as 11 inches, to make the final
break through to the men, who were then dragged on stretchers
from their tomb to a main mine shaft.

"The boys were ready to come home. They had their bags
packed for some time," said rescuer Rex Johnson who reached the

Media executives and agents have reportedly been jockeying
for exclusives with the men once they are freed, with talk of
A$250,000 ($192,000) for an interview and A$2 million for a
combined magazine, television, book and movie deal.

Mining is one of the world's most dangerous jobs. Worldwide
10,000 miners die every year. In Australia, 11 miners have been
killed in accidents in the past year.